Ljetna škola – Peter Linebaugh: The Magna Carta Manifesto

Ljetna škola prenosi snimku intervjua od 14. ožujka 2009. s profesorom povijesti Peterom Linebaughom o njegovoj knjizi “The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All” iz 2008. godine, u kojoj nas poziva na čitanje Magne Carte iz kojeg se vidi kako su današnje ideološke postavke liberalnog kapitalizma o jednakosti ne samo iluzorne, već su i bazični mehanizmi privatizacije te time i stvaranja klasnih razlika.


Peter Linebaugh: Well, I’m a historian, so I love dates, let’s go back to 1215, June 15th, 1215. Bad King John in England is forced by a whole array of circumstances to sue for an armistice in a civil war. This is in feudal Europe, the time of the Crusades, a time of beginning of commodity production, a time of hostility between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and above all, a time of expropriation of peasants throughout Europe. Also a time of heresy. 1215 was the same year as the Lateran Council and the beginning of the Inquisition in Europe. So it was a very big turning point in global history. Magna Carta itself is 63 chapters, each of these is just two or three lines long, it was written in Latin, became a foundation for English Law, the Charters of English Liberty. Tom Payne said the American colonies needed to have something like it, and as a result, we have the Declaration of Independence, of course, that’s 1776. The chapter 39 of Magna Carta is the one that’s often carved on the walls of American courthouses, students used to be required to memorize it, and it says that ‘no free man shall be deprived of his liberty without judgement by his peers and due process of law’. And already, I think, we hear echoes of this in the US Constitution. And, indeed, the American Supreme Court has quotes and refers to Magna Carta ever since the beginning of the Supreme Court. That’s: trial by jury, prohibition of torture, habeas corpus, due process of law; all are legal principles that derive from these two or three lines of chapter 39 of Magna Carta. And lawyers, historians, English history nerds, we go back and study this and look at it, but we had forgotten during much of the post-war… second half of the 20th century. And it’s time to recall these principles.

And as I did so, Mike, I came across even a deeper forgetting. Whereas not only the Magna Carta rem… I said the Charters of English Liberty. There was two of them. And the second one was the Charter for Forest. And coming here to the North West, from the Great Lakes region where I live, I was very conscious of this, flying over the mountains, and trying to see what forest remained and what did not. For the conquerors of England, the Norman conquest, they came in with their own forest law which was to preserve the forest basically as a game preserve to the kings. But others, who had been using this habitat for millennia – for cattle, pasturage, for pigs for pannage in the forest as a farmacopia, simple one, for peasantry. For fuel, where this was the woodland epoque of history, in contrast to coal or petroleum. Common people had common rights in the forest and the Charter of the Forest recognized and then acknowledged this fact of a commons in the energy habitat of that era. And it was this discovery of mine that just blew me away, because it seemed that in our epoque, the feminization of poverty, the deprivation of forest, the increased immigration and boat people and transfer of huge populations from one continent to another arose from the absence of rights to subsistence. So I made a parallel between the woodland epoque and the petroleum period and it was these two themes that are interwoven in the work that I produced, the Magna Carta Manifesto. The theme of subsistence for all and the theme of protections against autocracy or tyranny.

Mike: So who are the principal authors of the Magna Carta?

Peter Linebaugh: I’m not as sophisticated as I’d like to be in answer to your question, because in a way I wanna dodge it. I think there are some individuals, Stephen Lancton, the archbishop of Canterbury comes to mind first of all, but the reason I wanna dodge it is that he responds to social forces and so his authority as an author is a collective one, he has to negotiate with barons, with merchants, with peasantry in order to attain stability in this armistice that Magna Carta is. It’s a peace treaty, basically, between class forces. Sometimes we hear the word author and we have a notion of individuality that I think contrasts with the anonymity that otherwise the historian is faced with. You know, the old English ditty ‘the law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common but lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose’. This is anonymous, and when we think about it we see the principle of incarceration or enclosure and criminalization on the one hand is logically and historically tied to the deprivation of subsistence and the commons on the other hand. So, you know, I contrast individuality with anonymity in answer to your question.

Mike: Yeah, I guess I wasn’t really looking so much for individuals and more to if it was the elite that wrote it or if the regular commoners were fairly represented within it.

Peter Linebaugh: Very important question, very. But certainly they are represented in it, very powerfully, in Chapter 7 of Magna Carta, which grants to the widow her reasonable estovers in the common. Where estovers means ‘a subsistence access to wood’. So they respond to commoners, it’s not until really the 17th century, the time of the slave trade, the time of the witch burnings, the time of the settlement of European people in North America, that the common people begin to appear on history in their own name, so to speak, this is the time of the English Revolution, the time of the levellers, the time of the diggers, and England wants to export them, get rid of them, hence the settlement, or colonization of the American colonies, the indentured servants, and the white slavery. With those charters of the American colonies is often the verbatim Chapter 39 from Magna Carta, which now reappears in human history on the other side of the ocean, and as principles of Virginia, Massachusetts and some other colonies, and it’s from there that then Thomas Payne, or the founders of the USA derive their link – Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence and then to the American legal tradition.

Mike: Was the Magna Carta written primarily at one point in time or has it been added to over the years?

Peter Linebaugh: Yes, another good question, and really occupies scholars, because it’s in evolving principles the… you know, even at the beginning… it was written in Latin, there are about 17 copies of it that clerks would write out, but right away it was published, and the way they published back then was not by print, remember this is before print, but by reading it aloud from pulpits in cathedrals, and it was read aloud in Latin, it was read in Norman French and it was read even in English, by the 14th century. After the renaissance, after the era of print, it becomes more wide-spread, but the notion of publication or broadcasting is one that’s not just print, not just software, but was the human voice, you know, viva voce, and this is how Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest was made known. But even in the Middle Ages, the peasantry was of course suspicious of print and writing as often it contained traps for them and in the great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages one of the targets was the destruction of such manuscripts. But there were also among peasants those who were literate and who were able to read the gold and azure letters of the inks of the precious and beautiful parchment manuscripts of that time. I was interested in this, Mike, because I was saying ‘well where did they get these inks from’, and you know the gold inks would come from Africa, the azzured inks, or blue inks, would come from Lapis Lazuli and that would be Afghanistan and Persia. So here, these great manuscripts of the Middle Ages have their material existence in Africa and in Central Asia. I was fascinated by this. But, of course, it is a… the meanings of the Charters are ones that, as I said earlier, grow and evolve with human struggle. And I think it’s time again for them to change in relationship to the dire needs that we face now.

Mike: You mentioned a term ‘the feminization of poverty’, can you define that?

Peter Linebaugh: Well, just that, looking at the demographic pyramid or structure of human life, we are all our mother’s children. Reproduction depends on the health of women, our existence, not just as in parturition, not just in birth, but our nurturance as infants depends on her access to subsistence and it is this which has been so severely threatened in the era of neoliberalism, you know, from Chiapas, from Bolivia, to Kenya, to South Africa, to Sumatra or Indonesia it’s the elderly, it’s the children and it’s the women who suffer first, and so with the huge crisis brought about by the expropriation from land, from forest, from waters, and their privatization, that women will suffer first, and so, that’s what I mean by the ‘feminization of poverty’ in our own era.

Mike: So, you also mention that the Magna Carta was essentially like a ‘peace plan to end a class war’ that was going on, did it indeed end the class war then?

Peter Linebaugh: Eventually. The class war takes other forms, it so far hasn’t ended, I don’t wanna get too reductionist here, so I think I’ll… yeah, I think we all need to think about this subject much more than we do, it’s a power relation, the… in the Middle Ages Magna Carta was a kind of a settlement, it was a truce, we have important principles that derive from it, and more that can derive from it, but in itself it is no answer to our problems, it is on our side, should we choose to employ it. Oh, Mike, there was one other thing, I think, perhaps the most important thing in Magna Carta, and I forgot to mention it yesterday at the wonderful National Lawyers Guild Conference, on the law of the commons, and that is perhaps the most important principle of all in Magna Carta, and the one that certainly attracted Tom Payne, and perhaps the time will come when we need it. And that is the principle of resistance to autocratic power by any means necessary. Yes, that’s the foundation in Magna Carta and that’s, I think something that many of us are thinking now.

Mike: So, is that literally written into the Magna Carta?

Peter Linebaugh: Yes, mhm. Yes it is. Not only the principle of resistance but the principle of reparations. Bad King John had to return the forest that he had taken, that his brother Richard the First… Richard the Lion-hearted had taken forest left, right and center over England, and their father, Henry the Second had done the same. The principle of reparations is in Magna Carta in that all these forests had to be returned. Justice involved restitution, material restitution for crimes done, for harm caused, and so the Magna Carta is also a great redress of grievances and can also be used in our debates about reparations.

Mike: So, I’m sure you’re familiar with that saying that the victors of a war always get to write the history books and applying that to the class warfare it appears that, at least here in the States, you don’t generally, at least in the corporate media hear about class warfare. There is no class in the United States, we are all one big happy family.

Peter Linebaugh: Well uh, yes, of course, we know the line, but then I think ‘how many families have a copy, you know, near at hand, in the kitchen, of Howard Zinn’s Peoples history of the USA?’ I’m sure many of your listeners do, or how many of us will purchase that book to give to one of our children for a birthday or graduation present? How many of us know that what we learned from our grandparents and their struggles is so at odds with the line from the corporate media, as you were saying. So, when we have to fight for our history, when we have to honour our grandparents and the knowledge of the past, then history lives. If it’s just spoon-fed the pablum of the corporate media and the institutionalization of the fog factories of American corporate education, that just bows down to standardized tests and turns us all into cogs in a machine, when we fight against that, we do so with our own mind, we do so with our own struggles, and then it lives.

Mike: I was reminded while you were talking that you pointed out that resistance is written into the Magna Carta, as well as documents that were written after that, I believe?

Peter Linebaugh: Yes, the Declaration of Independence is always good to read, I’m always disappointed on the 4th July at how infrequently it is read, but it lists 24 reasons for throwing out the King. And of course, it’s not just the King, but it’s all levels of autocracy, from the little bosses, that rule over us, the wilderness of turnpike gates, to use a phrase of Tom Payne’s, you know – the bureaucratic nightmares that many of us have to suffer. Yes, this is monarchy, it’s not just the King, but it’s a structure of tyranny and autocracy that the Declaration of Independence can help us resist.

Mike: As well, are there any mention of reparations within the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution?

Peter Linebaugh: No, because here, Mike, we have the other side, and I don’t wanna get to dewy-eyed on this, you know the Declaration of Independence is the start, it’s a settlers document, and in the 1770s and the next decade the idea was to take the lands of the Shawnee, the Iroquois, the Potawatomi and the Miamis in the Ohio valley, yes, and of course, it came with the slave plantation. So we don’t get dewy-eyed about any of these documents, we don’t worship them, they’re not idols, we respect our history from below, but we also use our critical intelligence and realize that the USA is a settler society based upon the robbery of lands and that it became a great slave society, and we honour the struggles that seek reparations for these wrongs, and we look into our own pasts as immigrants from Asia, from Europe, from Africa, in order to rectify them and build a future worth living, a future without destruction, a future without building weapons of destruction and looking for an economy that’s not based on bullying, uhm … yes.

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